Photo courtesy Thosh Collins
Dion Begay works out with a kettle bell – one of his favorite tools for fitness – in Arizona.

Well For Culture: Simplify Your Approach to Fitness

Chelsey Luger

Fitness today can seem complicated, to say the least. For many, the idea of working out has moved far beyond a recreational gym session and turned into its own science, its own language, its own technology … its own world. Fitness has never been more sophisticated or engaging.

In some ways, this is a great thing. We should recognize the science behind improving our physical health and take it very seriously. But in other ways, this turn-up in technicality can turn people away from fitness by making it seem too intimidating or scary. In some cases, our ability to measure things like body mass index; our engagement in the social media fitness world; the availability of fitness technology in apps and wristbands; and the incessant marketing of supplements and weight loss schemes can lead to an over-emphasis on looks or numbers while causing us to lose sight of functionality, wellbeing and fun.

I elicited the expert advice of Jessica Barudin (Kwakwaka’wakw), a yoga therapist and founder of Indigenous wellness site; and Dion Begaye (Diné), a strength and conditioning coach, in order to break down both the good and the bad elements of this technical side of fitness, and talk about how we can approach exercise with a healthy balance in both mind and intention. Here’s what it comes down to:

Be Wary of Appearance-Based Goals

There’s no question that a lot of people’s primary motivation behind fitness training has to do with looks.

“I hear it all the time,” said Dion. “People come in requesting slimmer arms or a thigh gap.”

The idea seems problematic. Shouldn’t we be focusing on how healthy we are, not how we look in the mirror? Ideally, that would be the case, but we have to be honest. We’re human, living in a very superficial world, and we want to feel good about ourselves. There’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way. Let’s try not to blame or judge one another for succumbing to those pressures.

“We all want that,” Dion admitted. “It’s OK to want to have a great body, but at the same time, what good is low body fat if your body can’t functionally move well?”

Jessica also notes the prevalence of appearance-based goals, and while she recognizes the problematic nature, both trainers agree that it’s not always a bad thing.

“People have their goals, and a lot of their own insecurities,” Jessica explained. “If somebody’s desire is to look physically better and that’s something they can commit to, that’s OK.”

The bottom line is this: if looks are what’s motivating you to get to the gym, and if that’s the only thing that can get you to commit to working out, it’s better than nothing. However, it’s important not to get too caught up in all of that. We are all born with unique body types and physiques. Some of us are practically born with a six pack, even if we eat burgers all day. Others will have a tiny back side no matter how many heavy weights we lift. If you are thinking too much about looks, you might be putting too much undue pressure on yourself and losing sight of the really important part of fitness, which has to do with health.

A fit body means that your organs, muscles, and joints are functioning well on the inside, and that’s always more important than how you look on the outside. A fit body means that you can run around, take care of your kids, make it up the stairs without collapsing. A fit body means that you can work, live, play, and do things for yourself and for your family. That’s always more important than looks – try to make that your priority, and you will become more fulfilled on your fitness journey.

Take the Numbers Out of Fitness

How many pounds can you bench? How much do you weigh? How many inches around are your thighs? What’s your body fat percentage? How many calories did you burn according to your Fitbit tracker? How many push-ups can you do?

Numbers, numbers, numbers. We get way too caught up in this and it’s exhausting just to think about.

While it’s important to measure some numbers from time to time, but be careful.

Good measurements to take for your health include monitoring your weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels at the doctor’s office. This type of thing can be done once a year (maybe more often if you are diabetic or have other illnesses), and should be taken into consideration while consulting with a professional to create a fitness and nutrition plan to improve your health.

However, do not get caught up in the day-to-day obsession with losing pounds or inches. Don’t count calories. Don’t worry about the difference between benching five or ten more pounds. Beware of these ego-driven goals, and recognize that those numbers don’t actually matter when it comes to how you feel and perform.

“If you can train your body to be more functional and serve its purpose, you’ll live a better, longer, healthier and happier life,” Dion said.

Here’s a suggestion: during your next workout, try not to focus on any numbers at all. Don’t time yourself, don’t pay attention to pounds, don’t watch the clock, and don’t weigh yourself. Just do some challenging exercises until you’re really sweaty and tired, then call it a day. You’ll feel just as good about your workout – maybe better.

There is some value in keeping track of things sometimes, especially if you’re an athlete training toward a certain purpose, but you should also prove to yourself that you don’t need any of those tools to give yourself a good workout. Think about what our ancestors did, how they stayed in shape. They just worked hard and made sure they were healthy enough to do their jobs and take care of others. That’s what we should focus on today, too.

Functional Fitness and Meaningful Movement

“Functional fitness” has become a buzzword in the mainstream strength and conditioning world, but we urge you to keep in mind that the idea of functionality in the indigenous world is a little different.

“Functional fitness is action-oriented,” explained Jessica, “It’s all about getting through our day-to-day lives. We can be more connected to things that are physically demanding, like helping out a neighbor, or being really active with your kids.”

Barudin continues: “Think about movement that’s meaningful. Powwow dancing is a good example. You have to be so agile and light on your feet, you have to be so strong and have a lot of endurance. You can find meaningful movement in yoga, running, or many other activities, too.”

So that’s what it all comes down to. Aside from all the science, the technology, and the elevated knowledge that comes with the fitness world today, we have to remember the root of it all. Finding movement that’s meaningful to you can lead to a healthier mind. Being a strong individual leads to being a strong and contributing member of your community. Functional fitness is a means of taking care of your family.

Dion sums it up like this:

“Train your entire body to function well,” he said. “Train to eliminate muscular imbalances. Train to increase range of motion and mobility. Train to increase stability. Train to build muscle. Do anything that will increase your body’s natural ability to move.”

Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota from North Dakota. She hopes to be a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for health and wellness. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Ideas for articles? Email her: [email protected].

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I’ve always been a big advocate for exercise and movement. I walk a minimum of five miles a night, I practice a Filipino martial art (Eskrima, Kali) and I can attest to the fact that, if exercise ISN’T fun people rarely keep it up. We’re about two months away from people making all sorts of exercise promises they’ll never keep. Christmas is the perfect time to buy all that high-tech exercise equipment that will end up abandoned in the corner and covered in the week’s laundry by March. Exercise fads are as numerous as food fads (and many just as dangerous). We don’t need fancy exercise gimmicks that "target your problem areas," we don’t need expensive gym classes full of hipsters who are more concerned with the price of your workout gear than their own fitness, and we don’t need to spend a single cent to become physically fit. How? Turn off that TV, push away from your computer monitor, leave the dinner table and WALK! It was on network news this morning that the MOST efficient exercise for losing weight and becoming more fit is hiking. Our ancestor’s entire life was filled with exercise. There were no cars, no buses, no supermarkets, etc. They must certainly have been 10 times more physically fit than people their age today. Think of how devastating "The Long Walk," or "The Trail of Tears" or any other similar incident in our history WOULD HAVE been had our ancestors been obese, couch potatos! It doesn’t take much. Starting is the hardest part, but once you’re underway you’ll find yourself getting closer to nature and your neighbors. You have few excuses, and EVERYTHING to gain!